Three Ways to Reform the Public Lands Grazing Program

The dust has settled on the Cliven Bundy debacle and the media has moved onto the next spectacle. The Obama Administration should take this opportunity to do a little housekeeping on its privately-grazed public lands. The example of the Nevada scofflaw’s failure to pay his grazing fees and his refusal to adhere to environmental laws – as well as the Bureau of Land Management’s refusal to address the issue for twenty years– should serve as a wake-up call for a failing federal program that degrades the environment, costs the taxpayers a bundle, and enables a “tradition” that is no longer appropriate in the new West.

There are three steps that would provide vast public benefit:

1. Raise the grazing fee.

It should be abundantly clear that even if Mr. Bundy had paid up, he wouldn’t be paying enough for the privilege to graze on public lands. At $1.35 per month per cow/calf pair, this small fee pays for the livestock “unit” to eat about 1000 pounds of “forage,” also known as wildflowers, shrubs, grass, and wildlife habitat, drink about 30 gallons of water each day, and turn both into waste products that foul our creeks, our campgrounds, and our hiking trails. It’s a bargain for the rancher, but taxpayers subsidize the program upwards of $1.2 billion each decade.

The fee is low because it is calculated using a flawed formula. Efforts to revise the formula to ensure cost-recovery have been met with resistance from the Department of Interior and the Department of Agriculture. It is unclear why these agencies are comfortable operating at a substantial deficit for the grazing program while struggling to fund other essential federal programs, but it should stop. The President and the Secretaries should reform the fee program right away.

2.  Allow for grazing retirement throughout the West.

When Clark County, Nevada sought to mitigate its impacts on desert tortoise habitat, buying conservation credit on the public lands around Gold Butte was one way of doing so. Clark County paid for the BLM grazing permits to be permanently retired, a win-win for the ranchers whose cows were increasingly in conflict with the native species. Mr. Bundy wasn’t entitled to avail himself of the payment since he wasn’t a legal permit holder in 1998, but had he been playing by the rules with the federal agency, there would have been no reason he couldn’t cash out on his cows.

Voluntary grazing retirement allows ranchers to get out of the business and the grazed lands a chance to recover and improve as habitat for imperiled species. Conservation groups and private foundations will pay the ranchers, but the federal government needs to allow it on all public lands. This can be accomplished through legislative action, a simple mandate to allow for permanent retirement of relinquished permits. There are ranchers itching to go in many places throughout the west, and the pen-stroke of Congress would solve their woes.

3. End the permit renewal riders

The federal agencies can’t keep up with processing grazing permits with complete environmental reviews and so Congress has been offering them a free pass to renew without review since 2004. This means thousands of permits are rubberstamped for ten-year terms without having their impacts even evaluated. Without any checks on the environmental impacts of livestock grazing, the damage to our natural and cultural resources is done long before the agencies notice. If the agencies had more money (see #1, above), perhaps they’d be able to keep up better with their workload. So Congress should stop giving them a way out and the American public should demand environmental accountability on our public lands. We simply cannot keep deferring appropriate management on public lands: these are the last strongholds of native species and functional ecosystems, and climate resilience depends on improving the ecological conditions across the west.


Now is the time to end the free rides, failed oversight, and fiscal nightmare of the public lands grazing program.









  1. Maska Avatar

    All I can say is, “Amen.” It will take serious pressure on politicians to make these changes happen. We’re working on it.

  2. Ida Lupines Avatar
    Ida Lupines

    I just hope that if and when these grazing lands are phased out someday, they aren’t replaced with massive solar and wind farms, fracking and development that is shielded from environmental protection and/or sold off to the highest bidder by the Federal government! We should be very careful what we wish for here.

    1. Amre Avatar

      Ida, you do have a good point. The Obama administration hasn’t treated the environment like they said they would (expanding oil and gas production, proposing to delist wolves nationwide, etc) so we need to be very vigilant.

    2. Ken Cole Avatar

      This is happening anyway. It’s not because of grazing retirement.

    3. Demarcated Landscapes Avatar

      “Cows v. Conduit,” and just as fallacious.

  3. LM Avatar

    I keep asking this (maybe I should just google it) but does anybody know what the status is of the REVA Act? WWP went back to Washington last year to promote it

      1. Lyn McCormick Avatar
        Lyn McCormick

        Tks, went there today. Going to call Smith’s DC office tomorrow to see if the prognosis for the bill has changed since the Bundy debacle.

  4. Mark Bailey Avatar

    These three simple steps would bring the open lands quickly from the trashed Old West to a beautiful New West. The public would be astonished and delighted at the amazing results in just a few years. The only question would be why we didn’t do it sooner.

    1. Ken Cole Avatar

      That’s a bit of an exaggeration. Some of these lands, particularly the arid lands, may take decades to recover. Those infested by cheatgrass are likely to never recover due to the increased fire frequency. This is by no means an argument against real grazing reform but we need to be realistic about how fast the lands could recover.

      The way the BLM manages lands now results in irreparable harm to some landscapes. It seems there is never a time to reduce grazing. When the land is in reasonably good condition they won’t reduce grazing, when the land is threatened with cheatgrass invasion they won’t reduce grazing, when the land has turned into a cheatgrass monoculture they won’t reduce grazing.

      1. Lyn McCormick Avatar
        Lyn McCormick

        Ken, was having a conversation while driving around “the range” with another stakeholder representative after the regional RAC meeting a couple of weeks ago. They made the comment that a national EA was to be done on one species in particular. How is that possible? Like, when PEER was asked to do a multi-use environmental study but was told to exclude the LS stakeholder group. Anyway, would like a referral for an independent range analyst to do a study on an HA in this area. Feel free to contact me at the address on file with the moderator of this blog. Tks LM

  5. Kathleen Avatar

    ONE way to end the public lands grazing program:
    1. People quit buying and eating meat. Not only is the grazing issue solved (public land degradation, native wildlife vs. exotic domestic animals, deficit program spending, etc.) but a bunch of other big problems are greatly alleviated–climate change, resource depletion, water and air pollution, animal suffering, human health concerns…. It’s like we forget that all the ills associated with exploitation of domestic animals are the result of producing a product that no one actually needs and everyone–animals included (especially!)–would be better off without.

    1. Ida Lupines Avatar
      Ida Lupines

      Yes, this is the biggest thing, and nobody wants to face it, only point to the producers. It’s only going to get worse with a world population that keeps growing and demanding meat.

    2. Elk375 Avatar


      I just enjoy a one pound sirloin steak cook on my grill rare with an artichoke and an avocado. So good. I could never eat a vegetarian diet but each to there own. I am out of elk.

    3. Amre Avatar

      Meat does cause more harm than good. Meat production causes 14-18% of greenhouse gas emissions(more than cars, trains, and airplanes combined). Land is often overgrazed, resulting in erosion and habitat degradation. Every year, 100,000 native predators are killed by wildlife “services” to benefit the livestock industry. There is often extreme mistreatment of animals on these operations. Multiple studies show that high meat consumption increases the risk of diabetes and heart disease.

    4. rork Avatar

      Kathleen: You need to propose the mechanism that will make people buy less meat, and it may have to be world-wide. I can make many proposals (tax it), none of which I think will really work or be accepted though. As with energy conservation, trying to get people to act different without serious incentive doesn’t really work. Health concerns may slowly change things – but only a little.
      Gotta have deer left when the best shrooms come. Chanterelles will soon be among us, and September brings even better stuff. I had a record Morel season.

      1. Mark L Avatar
        Mark L

        Or, maybe be more selective with the meat they are eating? It’s obvious that some meats are much more energy intensive than others, some animals are incredibly beneficial to biomes. I can’t agree with a philosophy that says ‘just don’t eat any meat’…it’s not gonna happen and we all know it.
        In lieu of this, I think we need to specify which meats have a greater overall damaging effect than others. Lots of sites already do this with fish, anyway. Also, meat isn’t the only reason to have cattle and sheep around. There are other by-products. Same with chickens and goats.

      2. Kathleen Avatar

        Well, one mechanism that comes to mind would be to end taxpayer-funded subsidies to livestock “growers.” Let them pay market value for their grazing land, their water, and for the grain fed in feedlots and factory farms. Hold them financially responsible for their pollution. As it is, taxpayers pick up those costs so they can continue to purchase the artificially low-priced meat and milk that creates health problems and, subsequently, healthcare crises. Cow’s milk is a *required* component of the School Lunch Program…just one example of how the animal industrial complex is milking (ha ha) taxpayers for a product no one needs, that actually isn’t good for us, and that causes immense animal suffering. If the price tag for meat and milk reflected its actual cost, consumers would consume a lot less.

    5. Lyn McCormick Avatar
      Lyn McCormick

      Suggested reading: Primal Body / Primal Mind by Nora Gedgaudas

  6. W.Hong Avatar

    One of the things I enjoy being in America is I can buy meat anytime I want and I am really liking the meat cooked on a grill, very good.

  7. Ken Watts Avatar
    Ken Watts

    Grazing is a tradition in the old West and the new West. My home is surrounded by BLM land that is grazed very responsibly. The local rancher rotates his herd on four different areas to assure there is no overgrazing. Without the grazing, the fire danger in August would be very, very, high.

    1. Ken Cole Avatar

      Killing Native Americans on sight was a tradition too. It doesn’t mean it is the right thing to do just because someone deems it a “tradition”.

      1. Logan Avatar

        “Killing Native Americans on sight was a tradition too. It doesn’t mean it is the right thing to do just because someone deems it a “tradition”.”

        Equating grazing with murder seems like a bit of a stretch. It seems whenever the term tradition is used someone always plays the slavery card or ill treatment of Native Americans.

        All suggestions in the article appear to be very reasonable and something I can support.

        1. Kathleen Avatar

          Actually, he wasn’t equating grazing and murder–he was making a comment on the similarity of relationships vis-a-vis tradition…that’s how analogies work. Let’s face it, ‘tradition’ is often used to justify antiquated and/or cruel, unjust practices.

        2. Nancy Avatar

          “Equating grazing with murder seems like a bit of a stretch. It seems whenever the term tradition is used someone always plays the slavery card or ill treatment of Native Americans”

          Do you ever wonder why Logan?

        3. topher Avatar

          Making ridiculous comparisons has become a “tradition” around here. Maybe we should start by ending this “tradition”.

    2. Rosemary Lowe Avatar

      It is sad that in this time of severe biodiversity decline due to greedy human activity — livestock grazing– that some still choose to make excuses for them.
      Most “traditions” are barbaric and have no place in today’s world. How did this wonderful “tradition” of ranching on arid western lands come about? Read your history: after the Civil War, many working those slave plantations (owners, overseers,& other good ol’ boys who started the “tradition” of KKK), went West to “conquer” and “enslave” the land, animals, and kill off the native americans. Many of these folk were criminals, just as in the settling of Australia. These new “livestock barons” fought each other,(cattle ranchers fought sheep ranchers, fought small farmers, killed off remaining native people, and went full force to rape the land. Millions of cattle, (on cruel cattle drives) were driven across what were then pristine places, full of native animals. The systematic destruction of The West was now rampant. Wildlife populations were driven to extinction or near extinction. Riparian areas, native grasses,rivers, streams, all destroyed & polluted for the criminal livestock industry, which exists today–remember Cliven Bundy in Nevada? He is a perfect example of the racist, fanatic, dangerous,Sage Brush Rebellion, born out the 1870’s which exists today. This is your wonderful tradtion: an inhumane, environmentally destructive monster, which is responsible for the slaughter of millions of native wild animals–the ones who belong on public lands, as their last refuge.

      1. LM Avatar

        Yes, I’ve even heard ranching in Wyoming described as a “ceremonial” occupation.

  8. alf Avatar

    “…after the Civil War, many working those slave plantations (owners, overseers,& other good ol’ boys who started the “tradition” of KKK), went West to “conquer” and “enslave” the land, animals, and kill off the native americans. Many of these folk were criminals, just as in the settling of Australia. These new “livestock barons” fought each other,(cattle ranchers fought sheep ranchers, fought small farmers, killed off remaining native people, and went full force to rape the land…”

    In his Albion’s Seed, David Hackett Fischer makes a very strong argument explaining this. In a nutshell, he argues that the first English settlers to what is now the U.S. came from six (I think it was six) discrete regions of England, settled in different parts of the 13 original colonies, bringing their regional cultures or subcultures with them; and even today, those regional subcultures still survive.

    The “Borderers”, from the English-Scottish border area had a long tradition of outlawry, including cattle rustling, going clear back to Roman times (Think Hadrian’s Wall). That’s also one of the reasons many were sent to Ulster. The Borderers settled in the southeastern colonies, mostly : Initially in the Carolinas, and soon moved west into what is now Kentucky and Tennessee.

    Comes the Civil War, and the South loses. The South is an economic basket case, and many ex-Southern soldiers, especially from KY and TN, states which were never as rich as the coastal states even in the best of times, head west for a new beginning, They go to and through Texas, and many wind up in the Rocky Mountain states during the post Civil War mining booms. (The 1870 census of Lemhi County, Idaho indicated that a very high percentage of the inhabitants were born in Tennessee, for example.)

    As they moved west, they — all the cultures, not just the Borderers — took their culture and values with them and planted them in the new territories, where they still largely flourish. The “Borderer” culture, originally from the extreme north of England, was transplanted to the Carolinas, to the southern Appalachians, then to Texas, and on into the Rockies.

    This is, of course, a brief and oversimplified explanation, but it helps to explain why the cultures of Idaho and western Oregon — which was settled largely by New Englanders, cultural descendants of the Puritans, who originally came, I believe from SE England — are so different.

    And George Bush, raised in the New England culture and tradition, embraced hook like and sinker the Borderer culture when he moved to Texas, while his parents largely maintained the New England culture of their upbringing

  9. Amre Avatar

    It would be nice if the BLM and the forest service enforced current grazing regulations and added new ones. Or even better, get livestock off these public lands. But unfortunately, they don’t because of pressure from conservative politicians and obviously the agriculture industry.

    The beef business would likely fight hard against these 3 measures, but it’s worth it to defeat them. It’s gotten to the point where these ranchers, such as Cliven Bundy, act like these public lands are there own private property. There attitudes are leftovers from the 1800s

  10. Lyn McCormick Avatar
    Lyn McCormick

    Article by Vickery Eckhof – who was recently fired from FORBES for an article about PL LS grazing: BTW – her article got the most “hits” for any article previously published.

    Ranchers Want our Public Lands for their Livestock and want the Govt. to Stick it to Wild Horses and Taxpayers focuses on the inaccurate or non existent reporting of the number of livestock on public lands.

    1. alf Avatar

      It’d be nice if Miz Eckhoff had as much interest in and compassion for the true wildlife on the public lands as she does for her percious feral horses.

      Too bad she apparently doesn’t give a damn about sage grouse, desert tortoises, or any of the other wild (not feral) life impacted. And if she did care, it’d be nice if she did as much research on and provided as many statistics regarding those impacts to wildlife as she does to feral horses.

      1. Lyn McCormick Avatar
        Lyn McCormick

        Alf, This issue is not about being biased for or against any species – it is about the political hypocrisy and the clear bias in how the PL forage is allocated. You should comment to Vickery about your concerns re: a perceived bias against other wildlife. I’m sure she will enlighten you in that regard. In the meantime and since you mentioned the term “feral” here is another link for your perusal.

      2. HoofHugs Avatar

        The first horse ancestors appear during the termal maximum period prior to the Eocene, 55 million years ago.

        The modern horse, Equus caballus appeared in North America and only North America somewhere between 2 and .78 million years ago. The modern horse lived through 16 different glacial and warming periods. As a result the horse developed in a variety of sizes with slight morpohological differences. The social structure of the herds that live in the wild contribute to the long lived and far ranging environments where the horse has been successful. There are our true North American wildlife. Both humans and horses have been hard-wired communal relationships. Unfortunately,an alliance that included members of FWS, TNC, IUCN, and later, other wildlife groups have dedicated themselves to disinheriting our wild horses. However, these actions, in such clear conflict with rigorously peer reviewed scientific literature has cost all of the agencies, ngo’s, and scientific “experts” their scientific and ethical reputations.

  11. Lyn McCormick Avatar
    Lyn McCormick

    If the AG subsidies were eliminated: the below market grazing fees, the LS loss reimbursements, etc., etc. nobody would be able to afford to raise anything commercially. OR, they would have to take some of their deeded land out of alfalfa hay production, return it to native grasses and feedlot their stock for an extra month in the spring to allow the grasses to head out and start supplement feeding in the late summer / early fall on grass hay pastures, which you cannot do with alfalfa. Besides, this is how the bison producers have to operate because native bison are EXCLUDED from the PL grazing program. However, the market value for grass fed bison is $3-$4 / per lb. on the hoof. If the bison producers can raise meat commercially w/out subsidies, so can the beef producers.

    1. Elk375 Avatar

      ++ However, the market value for grass fed bison is $3-$4 / per lb. on the hoof. If the bison producers can raise meat commercially w/out subsidies, so can the beef producers.++

      How many people can afford Bison? How many people eat bison. My brother purchased a bison prime rib roast for a family Christmas party last year — $250. What a waste.

      A steer yields about 61% of live weight once dressed out, a bison would yield about 50% dressed out or $7 to $8 a pound for a “half” hanging. Butcher it and bone it out and the meat will be close to $10 a pound. American people want there meat and are not willing to pay $8 to $10 a pound for it.

      Kiddies want their Happy Meal and the parents will not spend $10 for a hamburger, small fries, a drink and a toy.

      1. JEFF E Avatar
        JEFF E

        “are not willing to pay $8 to $10 a pound for it”

        you are right. I went into A……… a coupled of days ago and they wanted 8.00 lb. for flank steak and said I was saving 3:00 dollars a lb. Fuck that.
        Fortunately I buy my beef at 1/2 or more a year. no hormones, no antibiotics, cut and wrapped for slightly more than 4.00 a pound, grain finished.

      2. JB Avatar

        The problem is that the cost of beef doesn’t reflect the true price of bringing the product to market. In this case, you have both subsidies and unmonetized externalities that, were they included in the price, would increase it quite dramatically. The question isn’t (or shouldn’t be) beef vs. bison; rather, we should be asking how we can live lightly on the land while producing enough food for a growing population?

        1. Marc Bedner Avatar

          To me the question is how to save wildlife habitat from the desperate effort to feed a human population which is already far too large. Even if you somehow managed to collect higher fees from public lands ranchers protected by armed thugs, the destruction would continue.

      3. LM Avatar

        Elk, I guess my point was that w/out PL grazing and other subsidies there is STILL a way to raise beef and the market will adjust for it. Ground Beef is almost $3 per lb or $14.95 for a 5 lb loaf (at Walmart and I’m not sure it’s even beef produced in the US) anyway and the overseas export demand is driving cattle prices. The number of independent family ranches is a small fraction of large corporate PL users. And, what about the sheep market ? Who is benefiting most there ? Most of the wool is shipped overseas as well as seed stock herds. Does lamb even register on the graph as a food source in the US ?

        1. HoofHugs Avatar

          Yes. Lamb is a staple on menu’s in high-end restaurants. Mutton and lamb are both used in Shepherds Pie and other Irish dishes.

      4. LM Avatar

        Also, a large % of the alfalfa hay produced in the US is also being exported. If you want a link for that I can locate those numbers for you.

      5. Yvette Avatar

        But bison just tastes better than beef. Of course, that is my personal taste.

        Isn’t prime rib beef also one of the pricier cuts? I don’t know the price, but was standing behind a fella that bought it for a Christmas dinner a few years ago. I remember thinking, ‘whoa, that’s a lot of damned money to pay for a hunk of meat’.

        1. LM Avatar


        2. LM Avatar

          It is but it’s worth it !

  12. LM Avatar

    Have posted this before but worthy of posting again: by the CATO institute

    Beyond the Grazing Fee: An Agenda for Rangeland Reform

  13. LM Avatar

    Here’s another worthwhile read: Todd Wilkinson’s biography
    “Last Stand, Ted Turner’s Quest to Save a Troubled Planet”.
    Ted Turner calls himself a “green Capitalist”

    Quotes from the Foreward by Ted Turner:

    “I believe in the power of the free enterprise system and the genius of democracy. I believe in freedom and liberty and private property rights . . . On so many different levels, the private sector is able to foster innovation and act faster, better, and more cheaply than governments, but governments have a crucial role . . .”

    “Those of us who claim that plundered environments are a necessary consequence of wealth creation have it wrong, the same as those who insist that government regulation is the bane of business”

    “We won’t and can’t consume our way out of the mess we’re in”

    “Our strength as a species resides with our ability to empathize-and in using our good fortune to minimize the pain and suffering of others, including other species. How we treat the Earth is the biggest expression of our success or failure as a society”

    1. Yvette Avatar

      LM, +++ for the above post on Ted Turner’s quote.

  14. Gary Humbard Avatar
    Gary Humbard

    One possible solution to grazing reform lies in three words “Endangered Species Act” with the greater sage grouse as its mechanism. Since the USFS and BLM will not raise fees, apparently are incapable of administering grazing leases and have a rubber stamp regarding renewing permits, adhering to the ESA seems to be the ultimate answer. If the bird gets listed (seems likely), the BLM and USFS (~90% of grazing on PL occurs on BLM) will be forced to protect the bird and its habitat.

    1. John Avatar

      We saw how the beef industry (i.e., cattle ranchers)were able to get the politicians to ignore the ESA listing of wolves. If it endangers their livelihood the politicians will again find a mechanism to overturn the ESA listing.

    2. HoofHugs Avatar

      Are you sure that the sage grouse is a separate species or a sub-species of another grouse? There are taxonomic lists that do not clarify this. The Sage grouse hybridizes and therefore, it is possible that you could declare the whole country a protected a habitat, but still not “save” the species.

  15. Lyn McCormick Avatar
    Lyn McCormick

    Ken and everybody, just spoke with, Paul Hoover, the staff legislative assistant for Adam Smith (D, WA)who sponsored the REVA bill. Basically, REVA offers a voluntary grazing permit buy-out program by third party interests to PL grazing lessees. It was referred to the house sub-committee on Conservation, Energy & Forestry. Basically, we have until the end of this year to get it kick-started. There are 16 co-sponsors on the bill, most of whom are East & West coast congressmen. Paul Hoover said they would very much like to have our help and support to get this bill out of committee. Feel free to contact him

    1. Lyn McCormick Avatar
      Lyn McCormick

      REVA HR 3234

  16. Larry Thorngren Avatar

    Just returned from a round trip McCall-Burgdorph-Riggens-New Meadows-McCall. The main Salmon River canyon above Riggins and all around Riggins is a total cheat grass mess. I saw south slopes that once must have fed thousands of Bighporn Sheep,that were covered with dry non edible cheat grass.
    The cheatgrass covered hillside accross the river from Riggins was crisscrossed with endless trails made by domestic horses. The trails went way up the mountainside, but I saw no fences so it must be private land all the way to the top.
    The area looks like a wildlife basketcase. Discouraging.

    1. LM Avatar

      Larry, you should find out who owns or has the permits on that range. If you can give me a more exact location I will look into it.

  17. jerry collins Avatar
    jerry collins

    Dump all the horses the BLM has in corrals onto the land Clivin Bundy’s grazing his cattle, and start shooting his cattle from planes instead of wolves.

    1. Lyn McCormick Avatar
      Lyn McCormick

      Yes, but we should eat the cows and let the wolves eat the horses

  18. LM Avatar

    Fubar – Chinese food Imports now require more land mass than the entire State of California

Subscribe to get new posts right in your Inbox